Friday, May 30, 2014

Congress Assembled: Why We Care About Ceremonial Protocol

On December 21, 1783, Thomas Jefferson sent a carefully drafted speech intended for the President of Congress to the rest of the Committee of Procedures for Washington’s resignation ceremony. To Elbridge Gerry and James McHenry, who were furiously drafting a set of ceremonial instructions known as protocol, he wrote “I send you the sketch, which I have been obliged to obliterate and blot after making what I intended for a fair copy…. Perhaps this answer is too short; perhaps it is too warm. A want of time must apologize for the one, and an exalted esteem for the other faults.”[1] Together, the three men came up with the adopted protocol for the resignation ceremony that today remains one of the most important written records to describe what happened on that day.

While protocol may seem like a boring list of who was bowing when, we have discovered that eighteenth-century ceremonial protocol is actually much more complex and revealing than originally thought. Protocol actually provides a contemporary account of how eighteenth-century people saw each other. What’s more, by learning exactly who was sitting and where, we can get one of the most accurate and contemporary descriptions of the Old Senate Chamber on the very day Washington resigned! Our staff has conducted months of intensive research to study every ceremony conducted by Congress between 1778 and 1783 in the hopes of putting together the puzzle pieces to recreate what exactly happened on December 23, 1783.

This print of Benjamin Franklin's reception at the French court is a perfect example of the American colonies, and later the United States, trying to communicate with other countries based around monarchies. Franklin's Reception at the Court of France, 1778, by Anton Hohenstein in the 1860s. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When the United States became a country, the ceremonial protocol of European courts were still the only respectable, official means to conduct business between countries. In order to be able to display themselves as a power to be respected, it was vital for Congress to develop a specific ceremony to receive ministers. Protocol required preparing the guest and Congress alike on the most minute movements, which were interpreted as highly symbolic actions to represent a hierarchical political structure. In one case, while Congress was in Princeton, the President of Congress even sat on a folio in order to assert his authority. Everything from removing a hat, to the height of the chair, to when it was appropriate to bow was studied ahead of time. The final product was a ceremony that was much more of a well-oiled theatrical performance, with significant meaning in each movement.[2]

In July 1778, Congress was preparing to receive its first foreign minister plenipotentiary, Chevalier Conrad-Alexandre Gerard, from France. Congress set about trying to determine a means of receiving the minister and adopted a set of rules, distinguishing three separate receptions depending on the rank of the minister: the Ambassador being of first rank, followed by the minister plenipotentiary, and finally the resident. Details that separated the ranks ranged from who would receive a cannon fired upon their arrival to the number of delegates accompanying a foreign politician upon their entrance.

The Journals of Continental Congress and several letters emphasize the care and length of time spent debating ceremonial procedures. Should the United States present itself as other foreign powers in a courtly way to emphasize its status, or should it stick to its ideals at the risk of creating a lackluster ceremony? Ultimately, Gerard assisted the torn delegates, even approving the protocol for his own reception.[3] The resulting protocol was used almost entirely as it was originally devised for every other reception of a foreign minister.

Portrait of Conrad-Alexandre Gerard, first foreign minister for the United States. Painted by Charles Willson Peale, 1779. Image courtesy of Independence National Historic Park and The American Art Journal, vol.2 no.2, 1970.

For ceremonies outside of the realm of receiving foreign ministers, Congress would form a new protocol committee to develop an outline specifically for each new event. In May 1782, an entirely new protocol was created for the new French minister plenipotentiary, the Chevalier de La Luzerne, to announce the birth of the French dauphin. La Luzerne had already presented himself to Congress upon his arrival, and so a new seating plan and performance had to be orchestrated.The Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Robert R. Livingston acknowledged the international significance of the success of this ceremony in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, “You will also receive in the enclosed papers an account of the marks of respect and pleasure with which the Annunciation of the birth of the Dauphin was received - They are of some importance at a time when Great Britain is endeavoring to represent us as wear of our alliance, & anxiously wishing to return to our connection with them - It is probable that the late changes in the British administration & the conciliatory measures they propose may excite apprehensions of our firmness, I have the pleasure of assuring you that it has not produced the least effect.”[4]

Edwin White's Washington Resigning as Commander-in-Chief. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1112.

While an individual of the twenty-first century may view protocol as pomp and circumstance, to the eighteenth-century minister or politician, it was an absolutely vital means to communicate the thoughts and feelings of an entire country. With this in mind, Washington’s resignation becomes an even more powerful scene. The protocol devised for the general had him received in the manner of a Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, the highest rank an individual could hold, making him the equal of the President of Congress. The moment Washington returned his commission, however, Congress treated him as nothing higher than a resident of the country. When Washington bowed to leave, Congress did not rise; however, they did uncover their heads upon his exit as a sign of respect.

The emotion behind these actions was not lost on the actors of the ceremony, and McHenry reported, “The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears….So many circumstances crowded into view and gave rise to so many affecting emotions. The events of the revolution just accomplished -- the new situation into which it had thrown the affairs of the world -- the great man who had borne so conspicuous a figure in it, in the act of relinquishing all public employments to return to private life -- the past -- the present -- the future -- the manner -- the occasion -- all conspired to render it a spectacle inexpressibly solemn and affecting.”[5] Through protocol Washington was, in his words, translated into a private citizen.[6]

[1] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry and James McHenry, 21 December 1783.
[2] Smith, Charles Thomson to Hannah Thomson, 27 August 1783.
[3] Meng, John J. ed., Dispatches and Instructions of Conrad Alexandre Gerard, 1778-1780. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1939, p.201-2. Gerard to Vergennes, 7 August 1778.
[4] Robert R. Livingston to Benjamin Franklin, 22 May 1782, Founders Online, National Archives. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 37, ed. Ellen R. Cohn. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 398–401.
[5] Smith, James McHenry to Margaret Caldwell, 23 December 1783.
[6] George Washington to James McHenry, 10 December 1783. Letter courtesy of Doyle New York Auctioneers.

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